Hands-on with Ford’s respirator that’s protecting health care workers from coronavirus


This simple device can can keep health care workers safe and save lives.  

Ben Sanders/Roadshow

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Editors’ note: The respirator that Ford loaned Roadshow is a demonstration unit intended for training purposes only. This means no one at a hospital or elsewhere is going without a respirator because we’re evaluating this one.

To protect health care workers and first responders from COVID-19, Ford is now mass-producing a powered air-purifying respirator of its own design. The device protects a person from breathing in contaminants. The automaker’s version went from initial idea to working prototype in less than 40 days. It’s loosely based on an existing 3M design. But in terms of product development, the engineers moved at the speed of light.

People fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are already benefitting from the automaker’s swift action. The Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, is the first customer to take delivery of these new PAPRs. “They ordered one pallet of them, 24 [in total],” Marcy Fisher, Ford’s director of global body exterior and interior engineering, told Roadshow on Tuesday. Fisher is heavily involved in the development of the respirators.

Ford’s PAPR production began in the middle of April at a facility near Flat Rock, Michigan. The automaker has the capacity to build 100,000 or more of these devices.

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What is a PAPR?

A PAPR looks like something an astronaut would wear. And in some ways, it is a lot like a spacesuit. But instead of shielding its occupant from vacuum, temperature extremes or dangerous radiation, Ford’s new PAPR is designed specifically to protect against the coronavirus.

A PAPR provides the wearer with filtered air delivered under positive pressure to protect them from outward contaminants. In this case, the system is designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease, but similar respirators have other applications. For instance, they can be used while welding or painting to keep harmful fumes away.

“The air pressure comes from up over the top of the hood and down,” Fisher explained. This prevents any outside contaminants from getting in. “[It] keeps that filtered air in front to the health care worker at all times.”

There are several major components to a PAPR. With Ford’s design, the most obvious is that brightly colored hood with an integrated face shield. It slips over the wearer’s head and fits firmly to the face with an elastic band. The seal here is snug, but not airtight, as it doesn’t need to be. A flexible hose connects to the back of that hood and runs to the main body of the respirator, which contains a battery, a blower fan and the all-important HEPA filter to keep those nasty viruses out. In a typical hospital setting, Fisher said Ford is estimating the filter will last for years.  

Ben Sanders/Roadshow

Ford engineers wanted to use an existing filter design, but 3M couldn’t build enough of them. So, Fisher explained the company went to Mann+Hummel, one of its automotive supply partners in Germany, which was able to create a filter specifically for this application.

“And that’s what really helped us move fast,” Fisher said, knowing how to leverage Ford’s existing supply base that it would normally use to build cars. The PAPR’s tube, for instance, is provided by a company called TI Fluids, which normally makes fuel tanks, among other things. Seat suppliers are sewing the hoods. Really, it’s a team effort.

Keeping things simple, Ford’s PAPR uses an off-the-shelf battery, one borrowed from portable power tools. If a replacement is needed, Fisher said you can buy one at your local Home Depot. As for the blower fan, “The motor itself is an off-the-shelf item,” she noted, likely similar to what you’d find in an F-150 pickup truck.  

Ford partnered with 3M while creating this device and both companies worked with the Centers for Disease Control during development. Ford’s PAPR is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for limited use to help during the COVID-19 crisis.

The official name of Ford’s PAPR is the Limited Use Public Health Emergency Powered Air-Purifying Respirator. Internally, employees refer to it as the “Scrappy PAPR” since it was made as quickly as possible and out of an unusual collection of components. “That’s the idea,” Fisher said. “It needs to be scrappy.”

Wearing the Scrappy PAPR

Wearing a PAPR is both reassuring and surprisingly simple. The device is easy to see out of and not overly bulky.

At first, putting the bright yellow hood on and getting it adjusted properly was challenging, especially since I wear glasses. But once I tweaked the headband and figured out how to correctly stretch the elastic lining while slipping the hood on, it was much easier.

That headgear provides a surprisingly broad field of view. There’s really nothing to obstruct your vision out of the wide face shield. You can see pretty much as you normally would — well, until your breath starts to fog up the plastic. But before that happens, just press the button on the bottom of the PAPR to turn the blower fan on. It operates in near silence and moves an unexpectedly large volume of air through the hood, which not only keeps you safe from viruses but prevents the shield from fogging.

While they can be cleaned and disinfected, the hoods are consumable items, Fisher said. “The intention is they are disposed of,” though each health care organization has its own procedures for that.

The main body of Ford’s PAPR is a little on the bulky side. Engineers didn’t have time to really refine the design, but I’d estimate it only weighs around five pounds, meaning it’s easy for nearly anyone to carry, especially since it attaches to your back with a waistband.

Ford is selling these PAPRs for $715 each, and any revenue the company makes will be donated to a COVID-19-related charity.

Ben Sanders/Roadshow

Going forward

Ford’s PAPRs are available for order right now. They come with one hood plus a standard-capacity battery and a high-powered battery. “Our list price is $715 [each],” Fisher said, though that is pretty much a wholesale price. Any revenue the company makes beyond breaking even will be donated to charity to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. These respirators will be sold by 3M-authorized distributors for greater speed and efficiency, though they can also be ordered from Ford.

Aside from producing PAPRs, the automaker is doing a lot more to help with COVID-19 crisis. It’s also manufacturing personal protective equipment and has already finished more than 12 million face shields. The Blue Oval is making isolation gowns from airbag material, and producing 200,000 of them per week. It’s even working with GE Healthcare to build ventilators. No, Ford is not the only automaker fighting this pandemic, but it’s certainly doing its part.

“The team is very proud and also very humble to be a part of this sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Fisher said. “That’s the driving motivation.”

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